Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
Rio Secreto, or the “Secret River,” is a series of caves carved out by the flow of an ancient underground river in Mexico. While the reserve is most famous for its large half-sunken cavern—a popular diving spot—you can also explore eerie passageways, swim in the river, and admire dripping stalactites, stalagmites, and colorful mineral formations.
Tulum, the site of a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city and a port for Coba, is one of the best preserved coastal Mayan cities in the Yucatan, in tandem with Chichen Itza and Ek Balam. Highlights of this archaeological site include the Temple of the Frescoes, which has spectacular figurines of the 'diving god.'
Set on a private stretch of white sand, Mr. Sancho’s Beach Club Cozumel allows you to avoid the island’s beachfront crowds and offers amenities for a relaxing seaside experience. Here you can swim in the Caribbean ocean, sample all you can eat from the restaurant and bar, float in the infinity pool, and relax in shaded cabanas.
The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Mérida Cathedral (Catedral de San Ildefonso) was built atop a Mayan temple in the 16th century. Notable for its relatively austere façade and surprisingly stark Moorish interior, Mérida Cathedral also houses some of Mérida’s most significant religious artifacts, including the Christ of Blisters statue.
In the heart of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula lie the ruins of Coba (Zona Arqueológica de Cobá), an ancient Maya city considered to be one of the most important settlements in Mesoamerican history. During its peak between AD 500 and 900, Coba housed 50,000 residents and was the central terminus for the complex Maya system of roadways. The jungle site is still being excavated, but visitors can experience the already discovered remains of thesesacbes, or stone causeways, as well as a number of engraved and sculpted monuments.
With its unspoiled beaches, lush nature trails, and abundance of marine life, Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park is among the highlights of Cozumel, set along the island’s west coast in the area’s National Marine Park. The Chankanaab name comes from the Mayan language and means "little sea," referring to the park’s natural lagoon. The access to the warm, turquoise sea is a top draw, as are the provided lounge chairs and hammocks prime for relaxing on the beautiful beach.
The star attraction of Cozumel Reefs National Park (Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel), Palancar Reef is a rich underwater landscape ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. Aquatic species thrive amidst these colorful corals, including sea turtles, rays, nurse sharks, barracudas, moray eels, and a kaleidoscope of colorful fish.
Isla Mujeres (the “Island of Women”) is known for its rich marine life and pristine beaches. Here you can snorkel at Manchones Reef, scuba dive in the Cave of Sleeping Sharks, or stretch out on the white sands of North Beach (Playa Norte). On land you’ll find bustling nightlife, with oceanside bars and restaurants serving fresh seafood.
Set in the middle of the Yucatan jungle, Xplor Park allows visitors to experience Mexico’s environmental treasures firsthand. Here you can raft down a stalactite-filled underground river, swim in cenotes, ride in an amphibious vehicle, or zipline above the canopy. There’s also a nighttime option to explore after dark.
Cenote Ik Kil is a sacred site to the Maya people, who once performed sacrificial rituals here. Located in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula and surrounded by tropical vines and small waterfalls, the so-called “Sacred Blue Cenote” is now a lush swimming hole popular with Riviera Maya tourists.
More Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
One of the New 7 Wonders of the World, Chichén Itzá is among Mexico's most visited and iconic archaeological sites. Known for its main central pyramid, this impressive Maya site—once the ceremonial center of the Yucatán—also features temples, ball courts, and a cenote (freshwater sinkhole).
Mostly unexcavated, the Chacchoben ruins (Zona Arqueológica de Chacchoben) make up the largest and most visited Maya archaeological site in Costa Maya. Here moss-covered temples sprout from a lush jungle, attracting visitors who want to learn about Maya history, including the collapse of the ancient civilization.
Akumal is a small beach town located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Meaning “land of the turtles” in the Mayan language, Akumal is famous for its plentiful sea turtle population. Its secluded white-sand beaches and peaceful bays are also ideal for those seeking a more private experience.
One of Cozumel’s most popular dive sites, Paradise Reef (Paraíso Reef) is famous for its clear water, diverse coral structures, and teeming schools of colorful fish. Here you can spot large sea species such as eels, rays, and nurse sharks in addition to smaller creatures such as seahorses, boxfish, and delicate pipefish.
Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park encompasses the island’s best-known diving and snorkeling spots, including the Palancar, Columbia, and Paradise reefs, as well as the Devil’s Throat at Punta Sur and the shipwreck ofFelipe Xicoténcatl—a minesweeper ship used in WWII. The park houses up to 26 species of coral and 300 species of fish.
Columbia Reef is famous for its complex architecture of caves, arches, and coral spires. Here, you can find schools of snapper, barracudas, sea turtles, scorpion fish, and even the rare passing nurse shark. With both shallow coral gardens and deep ocean-floor caverns, the reef is accessible to snorkelers and scuba divers alike.
Near the ancient town of Merida, you’ll find the massive but beautifully ruinous structure known as Dzibilchaltun. Though somewhat of a tongue twister for traditional English speakers, the name means “place where there is writing on the stones,” but unfortunately, due to erosion, you’ll no longer find much writing on the stones here. Instead, the intrepid explorer is rewarded with over 8,400 architectural structures to discover, many of which have astronomical (as well as religious) significance. Explore the stunning interior of the Temple of the Seven Dolls, listen to stories of absolute power at the Open Chapel and learn about the rich ancient Mayan civilization that was inhabited all the way through to 1500 A.D. when the Spaniards arrived.
The pedestrian-only Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) runs parallel to the ocean in downtown Playa del Carmen. This bustling tourist strip provides easy beach access and is within walking distance of shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Lining Fifth Avenue are shops aplenty, including those selling artisan crafts, fine jewelry, and cigars.
The circular cavern, clear water, and colorful fish of the Grand Cenote (Gran Cenote) make it one of the top natural attractions in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. The natural pool is surrounded by a boardwalk where you can take photos in the light that filters from above before venturing into the water to swim, snorkel, or scuba dive.
Located on Cozumel’s southernmost tip, Punta Sur Eco Beach Park (Faro Celerain Ecological Reserve) spans 2,500 acres (1,011 hectares) of coastal wilderness, coral reefs, and Caribbean ocean. Here you can find ancient Maya ruins, a picturesque lighthouse, and sandy beaches—plus exotic birds, crocodiles, and sea turtles.
From circus performers swinging from the ceiling and dancers crowding the floor, to celebrity impersonators and Broadway-style musicals, Coco Bongo is a nightclub unlike any other. At the Playa del Carmen location, you’ll find extravagant stages, multiple bars, VIP table service, and a dance floor known to rock through the wee hours.
Once an ancient Maya town, Ek Balam (meaning “black jaguar” in the Mayan language) is now one of the largest archaeological sites in Mexico, famous for its 96-foot-tall (29-meter-tall) Acropolis, a stone temple that offers picturesque jungle views from its peak. Don’t miss the jaguar motifs peppered around the site’s numerous structures.
This minor archeological site on the Puuc Route south of Merida is worth visiting to see its Palace of the Masks, an ornate structure covered with hundreds of masks of the same figure: the rain god Chaac. This repeating motif is rare in Mayan art and perhaps illustrates the importance of water—or the lack of it some years. There are no underground cenotes in this area, so rainfall was the only source of water.
Artifacts have been found here going as far back as the third century BC, but most of what remains was built between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. It was abandoned soon after and was empty when the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
Some of the sculpted elements of the site have been whisked off to various museums, but several low stone buildings and pyramids remain. Since Kabah is in a region dotted with other ruins, it’s usually a quick stop as part of a multi-site tour.
El Cedral is a village on the southwest side of Cozumel. It is also the site of the island’s oldest Mayan ruins, which date to AD 800. Spanish explorers first discovered El Cedral in 1518, and it became the island’s first official city in 1847. Today it’s home to a small community of quaint houses and farms, as well as an annual festival.
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